The kids are back, but the media center at one of California's largest high schools is quiet, even for a library. That's because the 4,000 students at James Logan High School in Union City are starting the school year without access to the aisles of books and computers sitting in a darkened room, unused.
"Due to budget cuts, the library is closed," read printed signs on the library doors.
Carla Colburn, the school librarian for eight years and a teacher for 26, is the only person who goes in there now. For one period each day, she goes to the library and prepares book carts for English-language-learner classrooms or history classes working on research projects.
"When we were open, we'd have anywhere from 600 to 1,000 students walking through here during the day," said Colburn, who has gone back to teaching English. "Now it's zero."
California School Library Association leaders say they have never heard of a school curtailing its library access so drastically. No data on school library closures are kept, but a steep drop in the number of certified teacher librarians employed by school districts shows students across the state aren't getting the library services they once had.
The loss of library access is just one example of what shrinking education budgets have done to public schools. Class sizes have gone up - Colburn's four English classes each have about 40 students. Teachers also saw their preparatory days eliminated this year.
The catalyst behind the budget cuts is inadequate support from the state, according to Rick La Plante, spokesman for Union City's New Haven Unified School District. Per-pupil funding for the district is $5,218 this year, down from $5,792 in 2007-08. In a district of 13,000 students, that adds up to $7.5 million less than five years ago.
La Plante said $5.7 million more will have to be cut if voters don't pass Proposition 30 in November, a sales and income tax increase that would raise billions of dollars for K-12 schools.
On a local level, a four-year, $180 parcel tax for Union City that would have raised $3 million annually did not garner the two-thirds majority it needed to pass in June. In response, the school year was cut by five instructional days, and teachers took a 1 percent pay cut and gave up an additional four workdays.
"What we're expected to do and what we're able to do are two very different things because of our budget," La Plante said. "We're left making impossible choices."
Parents rally for programsOne of the toughest choices facing the district came up two years ago, when cuts threatened the existence of the school's nationally recognized speech and debate program and a decorated marching band that performed at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. A group of concerned parents came together to raise more than $100,000 to help cover stipends for extracurricular advisers and coaches, rescuing the programs.
When school libraries face similar fates, the will to raise money often isn't there, said Pam Oehlman, president of the California School Library Association.
"It isn't as glamorous as a marching band," she said. "It's one of the first to go."
The average number of high school library hours has remained steady in recent years at 37 hours per week, said Barbara Jeffus, state Department of Education school library consultant, citing self-reported surveys. But according to a report from the state Board of Education, the number of certified teacher librarians declined 29 percent from the 2007-08 school year to 2010-11.
Essential skillsWhile students are more likely to log on to Wikipedia than open a book to write a research paper these days, Oehlman said library instruction in K-12 schools is needed now more than ever.
"They are at a real disadvantage their first year of college if they aren't good searchers or database users," she said. "It is a real disservice to our students."
Students said they are unhappy about the library cuts and wondered where they would find a quiet place to do homework.
Freshman Jaffer Amiri said last year he used to go to the library at César Chávez Middle School at least twice a week for school projects.
"I wish we could use (the Logan library), but we can't," he said. "So we have to get used to that."
Juniors and seniors are required to write a research paper in their social science classes, and 26-year teacher Alida Lombardi said that in the past she would always bring her class to the library to get a lesson about using reference books and online sources from Colburn.
"I'm a little stumped this year as to how I can adapt that whole project," she said.
Lombardi said students have been understanding about the teachers' lack of preparation days this year, but cuts have taken a toll on morale.
"It's kind of hard to continue to be excited and upbeat," she said.
There is still hope that a small increase in enrollment will result in additional state funds and the possibility of restoring some library hours, but for now, Colburn feels "demoralized."
"I'm happy in the classroom," she said. "But I just feel like the library is in a coma."
Neal J. Riley is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @realdealneal
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/education/article/School-libraries-hit-hard-by-budget-cuts-3854938.php#ixzz26DrqEUQV